Economic Outlook: Retail reality

By ANTHONY HALL, United Press International  |  Dec. 23, 2011 at 7:23 AM
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During the holidays, retailers fill their shelves and most of them watch the inventory turn into revenue.

The numbers are basic. Roughly seventy percent of the nation's gross domestic product -- the total output of goods and services -- is made up of consumer spending. Roughly 18 percent of retail's revenue, with the exception of restaurants, is generated between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve.

On Thursday, the Commerce Department pegged the gross domestic product at 1.8 percent in a final of three estimates. This happened to be a drop from the second estimate of 2 percent growth, with the largest revision coming from consumer spending, which grew 1.8 percent, rather than a previous estimate above 2 percent.

The retail sprint to the New Year this year began with a record-breaking $11.4 billion in revenue generated on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving that qualifies as the Big Bang in the retail calendar year.

Analysts look at that two ways. Granted, it could be a sign of a terrific holiday season for retailers. It wasn't. It turned out to be a sign not of pent up demand but of determined thrift. Consumer gravitated to discounts in droves. For the next two weeks, however, sales were disappointing. They even dropped week to week, the International Council of Shopping Centers said, until last week, when they rose sharply.

There are good years and bad years, but a disastrous year is when warehouses and shelves don't empty fast enough to make room for spring merchandise.

The one weapon retailers have up their sleeves is discounts, and The New York Times reported discounts have returned in full force as the season approaches Christmas Day.

Everything 40 percent off, says Abercrombie & Fitch. Take it away, 60 percent off at the Gap. At, some gifts are going for 70 percent off.

"It's really a game of chicken," said David Bassuk, managing director at retail consulting firm AlixPartners.

It is more than that. It is an economic barometer that nobody can ignore.

In international markets Friday, the Nikki 225 index fell 0.77 percent and the Shanghai composite index in China rose 0.85 percent. The Hang Seng index in Hong Kong gained 1.37 percent and the Sensex in India fell 0.47 percent.

The S&P/ASX 200 in Australia fell 1.18 percent.

In midday trading in Europe, the FTSE 100 index in Britain gained 0.97 percent while the DAX 30 in Germany rose 0.36 percent. The CAC 40 in France rose 1.32 percent and the Stoxx Europe 600 rose 0.91 percent.

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